Which protein powder is the best?
What does protein powder do?
Protein powder is a common supplement used by athletes and the general population, and it seems to be increasing in popularity.
Protein is a macronutrient that has many functions in the body, one of which is building and repairing muscle. Proteins are made up of chemicals called amino acids, and different proteins contain different amino acids.
An adequate level of dietary protein intake is necessary for all individuals not only for the growth and development of muscle or bone, but also for body processes such as liver detoxification, manufacture of neurotransmitters, hair and skin health etc. Therefore, everyone should be making sure that they are consuming adequate protein.
How much protein do I need?
The amount of protein that an individual needs to consume per day is determined by their size, weight, and amount of training that they perform per week. For example, a 100kg man who is training for and competing in Iron Man competitions is going to need a lot more protein than a 70kg man who is going to the gym 3 times per week for 45 minutes. Protein requirements for sedentary compared to athletic individuals is as follows:
|Protein intake (g/kg/day)
|Sedentary men and women
|Elite male endurance athletes
|Moderate-intensity endurance athletes (a)
|Recreational endurance athletes (b)
|Football, power sport
|Resistance athletes (early training)
|Resistance athletes (steady state)
|Approximately 15% lower than male athletes
- a) Exercising approximately 4 to 5 times per week for 45-60 minutes
- b) Exercising 4 to 5 times per week for 30 minutes at <55% VO2 peak
Daily protein intakes under 2g per kg of body weight per day in healthy people are unlikely to cause side effects. Protein excess in excess of this amount may be detrimental to health as protein is processed through the kidneys and may cause excess calcium to be excreted in the urine, which may lead to weaker bones and kidney disease.
I would recommend trying to get all your protein intake from food – high protein foods include lean meats, eggs, cheese, dairy, tofu, legumes and beans. However, sometimes an individuals’ protein requirement can be so large that it becomes a challenge to eat enough food. This is where a protein powder is useful – it is a convenient, easy method to increase your dietary protein intake without overthinking or spending too much time trying to eat enough food to get to your daily protein requirements.
There are so many protein powders on the shelves nowadays – whey, soy, pea, rice, hemp… the list goes on! However, due to the sources of these protein powders and the amino acids they contain, not all protein powders are created equal.
I have created this guide to go through how each protein powder differs in their composition and use so you can make the best choice for you about which protein powder to spend your money on.
What is a Complete Protein?
Amino acids are small molecules that are the basic building blocks of proteins. There are 9 essential amino acids – these cannot be produced naturally in the body and therefore we have to eat them through food. A complete protein contains all 9 essential amino acids – examples include fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and some soy foods. Vegan protein options that are considered ‘close’ to being complete are quinoa, chia seeds and buckwheat.
These are the reasons as to why not all proteins are created equally. A complete protein is a protein source that contains all the 9 essential amino acids in abundance. Examples of food considered a complete protein includes fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and whole sources of soy.
Incomplete proteins do not contain all the essential amino acids. While these sources of protein are still helpful, we have to eat a greater variety of sources to obtain the whole range of amino acids that our body needs. This is important for vegans and vegetarians, as plant-based protein sources are usually incomplete. Plant-based options that are considered ‘close’ to being a complete protein include quinoa, chia seeds, and buckwheat.
BCAA’s, or ‘branched chain amino acids’ are a small group of 3 essential amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three amino acids are different because they can be metabolised in skeletal muscle, while other amino acids are metabolised in the liver. Because of this, BCAA’s are thought to be associated with energy production.
Which Protein Powder to choose?
There are so many different protein powders on the market so which protein powder is the best for you? The protein powder you should choose depends on a few different factors – allergies, lactose intolerance, vegetarianism/veganism, as well as your hormones. I’ll now go through a few of the common protein types and discuss the pros and cons of each.
Animal-based protein powders are derived from animal products. The most popular protein powder at the moment is whey protein, which is created from dairy that is separated through the cheesemaking process. Other animal-based protein powders include casein and egg-based proteins. Benefits of consuming an animal-based protein powder include the ease and speed in which our body can digest the proteins as well as the abundance of all nine essential amino acids. Whey protein is especially high in leucine — the most important amino acid in the muscle-building process — as well as cysteine, which helps to support muscle growth and metabolism. One of the biggest cons from animal-based protein sources is the abundance of allergies, sensitivities and intolerances that individuals can experience from products containing things such as dairy or eggs.
Whey Protein Isolate vs Concentrate
The two main types of whey protein are whey isolate and whey concentrate. Both of these options are able to be digested quickly and have a high amino acid content.
Whey isolate goes through more processing and so it contains fewer ‘add-ons’ such as carbohydrates or lactose, therefore it is a richer source of protein compared to whey concentrate. Due to the lower lactose content of whey isolate, it is also better for people with a lactose intolerance/sensitivity. However, due to increased processing whey isolate can be more expensive.
Both whey isolate and whey concentrate are considered high-quality proteins, so either of these options are a great choice.
Plant based protein powder
Dairy free protein powder, or commonly referred to as plant-based protein powder, is a protein powder that derives its protein from a plant source. Types include pea, hemp, pumpkin seed, brown rice, and soy.
There are many reasons you may want to go with a plant-based protein over dairy-based; with most variables of plant-based powders having similar advantages and disadvantages. Vegans and individuals with lactose intolerance or allergies may rely on plant-based powders. Some plant-based options are also lower in calories/energy, therefore might be useful for those trying to lose weight.
Downsides of dairy-free proteins are that they may not be digested as well as whey protein. They also may not be complete protein sources, however this can be fixed by mixing together more than one plant-based powder, such as pea and rice. Most of the time plant-based powders can be bought in a blend, making it a bit easier and cheaper for you to get a wide variety of amino acids from a plant-based option.
Soy protein powder
Soy protein powders are created from processing and dehydrating soybean flakes. Soy protein is a great plant-based option as it is considered a ‘complete’ protein, unlike most other plant-based options. Soy foods have also been shown to help with increase good cholesterol and decrease bad cholesterol. Downsides are that soy protein has been proven to be less effective in building muscle compared to whey protein due to the reduced amount of some essential amino acids.
Rice protein is created grinding up the rice into a small grained, powdery substance and then adding an enzyme that will separate the starch from the protein found within the rice. While rice is not a ‘complete’ protein, it is commonly seen in a blend with other plant-based protein sources.
Pea Protein Powder
Pea protein powder is created by grinding yellow peas into a flour substance, and then separating the dietary fibre and starch from the protein. Pea protein powder is one of the more easily digestible plant-based proteins (just behind soy), and is hypoallergenic, meaning that it causes fewer allergic reactions. It is also a good plant-based source of iron. Pea protein is considered a ‘complete’ protein, however the content of some amino acids is low.
Hemp protein powder is made from the processing of hemp seeds. This protein powder is a complete source, however there are mixed results on how much of each amino acid is contained. Hemp has a relatively lower level of protein content per serving than other protein powder sources but is relatively easy for the body to digest. As Hemp protein sources are slightly less refined compared to other plant-based powders, they also contain dietary fibre and unsaturated fat which is great for our gut microbiome and heart health.
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance found within your muscle cells that helps to produce energy during periods of heavy exercise. On a chemical basis, creatine shares many similarities with amino acids and our body can produce it from the amino acids, glycine and arginine. About 95% of the body’s creatinine is stored in muscles in the form of phosphocreatine. The other 5% is found in the liver, kidneys and brain. When you supplement you increase stores of phosphocreatine which is a form of stored energy in the muscle. Phosphocreatine helps the body to produce more of a high-energy molecule called ATP. Creatine also has an effect on cellular processes which lead to muscle gain, strength and recovery. Creatine is well-researched to increase performance, reduce fatigue during exercise and help with recovery. Due to this, its use is becoming more popular in athletes and the general population.
We can get creatine from animal-based food such as lean meat, milk and seafood.
Protein Contents Within Different Protein Powder Sources
The protein content of a protein powder can vary wildly between 51% to 86% of the total substance. These variations occur due to different food sources and processing methods.
Variations within protein groups can also occur due to different sources or even different processing procedures such as whey isolate and whey concentrate, which was explained above. Below you can find the percentage of protein content found within some of the popular protein powder sources. Please note that amino acid profile is not included in this list.
|Percentage of total substance that is protein
|61% – 91%
|72% – 84%
Protein powders can come in many forms and can have many components added. Common additives include flavourings, vitamins and minerals, super foods, caffeine, sugars, and sugar alcohols (such as erythritrol). Pure protein can be quite unpalatable (e.g. natural pea protein tastes like peas – surprise surprise!) and if it has a strong flavour it can be difficult to make in your smoothie. I tend to go for vanilla flavour as it’s a bit sweeter and you can pair it with anything. I’m not a huge fan of lots of additives and I usually recommend a clean protein. That means that it’s mostly protein and not much flavouring etc. Then you have less chance of reacting to one of elements in the powder and you can add lots of natural foods to it to make it a complete meal.
My formula for a good, balanced protein shake is:
- Protein powder
- Fruit – frozen bananas, mangos, berries etc are great.
- Leafy greens – spinach is the most tasteless so works well
- Fats – coconut milk, almond butter etc.
- Something wet – water, almond milk or coconut milk if you are already using
- Extras – chia, cacao, nuts and seeds etc.
It is good to experiment to find your preference re. taste and I would highly recommend buying a small tub of powder first to save on unnecessary expense if you don’t like the particular type or flavour you have purchased. When you have worked out what works best for you, you can splash out and buy in bulk.
If you are unsure of the type of protein you should be choosing and the amount of protein you may need in your diet Book in for a consultation today. Getting the right amount of protein into your daily diet can make a huge difference in health, weight management, sports performance and physique goals.